Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Me Imperturbe" (1860)
Author:
Dacey, Philip
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem first appeared in Leaves of Grass in 1860 as number eighteen of "Chants Democratic." In 1867 it acquired its present title and in 1881 was transferred to the "Inscriptions" cluster.

Whitman's use of French in the title and opening line exemplifies a practice both typical and controversial: his visit to New Orleans in 1848 apparently stimulated a long-lasting interest in the language, yet his emphatic Americanness renders his frequent employment of French anomalous. Softening the anomaly, however, may be the fact that Whitman, never in France and never a formal student of French, felt relatively unconstrained by the requirements of that language's conventional usage. For example, "imperturbe," used adjectivally, is neologistic, a hybrid of "imperturbable," the adjective, and "perturbe," the verb. Also, many of his "French" words (though not "imperturbe") appeared in contemporary editions of Webster's dictionary and were already undergoing domestication. A third language is actually present in the poem, as "Mannahatta," a word used many times by Whitman, is an Algonquin Indian name for New York and means "large island."

The two words of the title can be read as a microcosm of the poem's structure, which contrasts the human animal, given to foibles and capable of saying "me," with nature, a system self-balanced and ultimately imperturbable. The poem's subtly handled syntax, which never settles into grammatical closure, reflects that contrast: Whitman's apparent claims of imperturbability in the opening four lines are revealed in lines 7 and 8 to be more a matter of wishing than the initial tone indicates; the optative gesture, "O to be," carries the weight of aspiration and prayer. The poem can be seen, therefore, as an important part of the process of Whitman's self-creation, both literary and otherwise; only a man given to perturbations in his personal life might hanker so intensely for imperturbability.

The primary emphasis on the personal in this poem should not obscure the force of lines 5 and 6, which broaden the poem to a prayer for the nation and thus the list of exigencies in line 4, including "poverty" and "crimes," to the status of a less than flattering national portrait with which "we imperturbe," the citizens, must learn to live.

Finally, a note on "me" rather than "I," the latter of which would seem to be more appropriate grammatically throughout the poem: the use of the objective form has the effect of making the self more passive and receptive, a target, as it were, for various agencies. This role of the sufferer, of course, was one from which Whitman did not shy: "I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there" ("Song of Myself," section 33).

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Charles T. Davis, eds. Walt Whitman's Poems. New York: New York UP, 1955.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Francis, K.H. "Walt Whitman's French." Modern Language Review 51 (1956): 493–506.

Kahn, Sholom J. "Whitman's Stoicism." Scripta Hierosolymitana 9 (1962): 146–175.

Pound, Louise. "Walt Whitman and the French Language." American Speech 1 (1926): 421–430.

Rajasekharaiah, T.R. The Roots of Whitman's Grass. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1970.

Schyberg, Frederik. Walt Whitman. Trans. Evie Allison Allen. 1951. New York: AMS, 1966.

Thurin, Erik Ingvar. Whitman Between Impressionism and Expressionism: Language of the Body, Language of the Soul. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell UP, 1995.


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